Martha Groves Perry

Interview: Martha Groves Perry on Her Outward Turning Songwriting For ‘Call Out’


Martha Groves Perry photo by Kenny Schick

Martha Groves Perry on Her Outward Turning Songwriting For Call Out

Bay Area singer/songwriter Martha Groves Perry recently released new album Call Out which represented some developments in her craft that came about during the precarious period of the pandemic and on the larger social state. Having always been a more internally-focused songwriter, she found herself unwilling or unable to address what she saw going on in the world in the past three years, but an unlikely catalyst set her in motion to make bolder statements. It marks a new horizon for her songwriting and makes for a very engaging collection of songs that just might help audiences recognize and acknowledge their own emotional journey in recent years.

Working with Kenny Schick again as producer, Martha Groves Perry pursued her typical dual approach to songwriting for these tracks, which involves recording melodies from her dreams and also journaling heavily. Later, bringing mood and subject matter together, she found ways to enfold the contradictions she saw in daily life into these new tracks, including, but not limited to, the underrepresented voice of the female experience, the hopefulness in the face of hopelessness she found in the world, and the need to engage with feeling when overwhelming experiences in life leave you numb. I spoke with Martha about Call Out and the surprising new developments she embraced to find a more outward-turning voice.

Americana Highways: I really appreciate how deeply you explore internal states in your lyrics. There’s a level of detail there that I don’t often hear and I can really relate to.

Martha Groves Perry: Those kind of songs are really my bread and butter in terms of where I usually go. I like the articulate the human experience, really, but even more the female human experience. I think our reality and world view is often not represented, and certainly not valued in many ways. Many women come up to me after my shows, weeping, saying “You spoke my mind in a way that I’ve never heard before. That’s part of what keeps my engine running. The question of what we write about and why we write it is something I think about all the time.

AH: It’s really interesting that you’ve also branched out into a little more external commentary for this album. It totally makes sense in the context of how intrusive the world has been for the last few years.

MGP: That’s a great way of putting it!

AH: Was that a catalyst for a development for you?

MGP: One hundred percent. I actually wrote very little during the early pandemic since I live in downtown San Francisco and a lot of what was going on was either outside my window at home, or outside my place of work, which is Union Square. During the height of things, Union Square suffered from rioting and the gallery where I work was boarded up. It wasn’t a theoretical thing for me. I was right in the middle of it. It was extremely intrusive. I actually was refusing to write anything. I didn’t want to write about “this.”

That changed when a little girl in Kentucky asked me to write a song about Covid, “McKiely’s Song,” which is the 11th track on the record. I had released an album in March of 2020, which was terrible timing. But in October of that year, a venue owner I knew had invested in high quality livestreams and invited me to do one. It was a huge room and it was basically just the people required to run things.

I did the livestream and a little girl in Kentucky saw it, who is the daughter of someone my old high school friend is dating. During the broadcast, she turned to my friend and asked him to ask me to write a song about how terrible Covid was. She was seven years old at the time. My friend let me know the request, and I take these things seriously. This little girl cracked open my unwillingness to write about the pandemic. I had already written a song called “You Might,” which is very angry, and is the second track on the album.

AH: Yes, those are both songs I was going to ask you about due to their very different qualities. “McKiely’s Song” is such an emotive lament and “You Might” is such an embattled, strong piece.

MGP: I felt like I was faking it until I made it with “McKiely’s Song.” Singing about sorrows ending was not how I was feeling. My mother had almost died of Covid. I credit McKiely, though, and I actually met her for the first time a few weeks ago on tour. She’s now ten and she sang with me. She’s the reason my songwriting changed.

AH: That’s amazing because if any other impetus had come from a different angle, you might have refused. But that’s so heart-melting a request, it was impossible not to try.

MGP: Absolutely. I felt I couldn’t do it. It was so overwhelming. But when a seven-year-old asks you, you’re not going to say, “Sorry, I’m too hopeless, little girl.”

AH: Even hearing that she’s ten years old now is such an eye-opener of how much time has already passed. Time moved in such a weird way.

MGP: Think about how much her life has changed between ages seven and ten!

AH: With “You Might,” honestly, I think the sound is perfect for the subject-matter. It’s a total communication. That song surprises me because of the way that it builds up and has rising elements. I didn’t expect that. Was that aspirational or did you feel reassured at the time?

MGP: That’s an interesting question because the version of the song that I put on the album was revised. I originally wrote that song before the 2020 election. I played it at the livestream in October of 2020 and it had references to leadership. Then when the election played out, and January 6th happened, it wasn’t until after that that I worked further on that song. I actually rewrote several lines.

When I wrote it initially, I was not at all hopeful. When I re-wrote it, to make it applicable to the time we were recording it, I did have hope. I had seen the outcome of the election and January 6th, and I could see that democracy had hung on by a thread. I was horrified and overjoyed at the same time and I wanted to memorialize that.

AH: Speaking to the female experience in your songs, I often feel that women are expected to edit themselves, to cut back on what they are actually saying, to be more brief than they really want to be. A song like “McKiely’s Song” doesn’t allow that. It expresses a lot of things that I think women are encouraged not to express or elaborate on.

MGP: Wow, thank you. That song was incredibly difficult to write. My songwriting process is that the melodies come from dreams. My phone is stuffed with them. Melodies come to me during the night, and I roll out of bed, and sing them into my phone, then go back to bed. Then I also do tons of journaling. My songwriting is a little bit like sculpture, not in that it’s refined, but in the sense that I’m finding the song in a big block of granite. I’m hammering away until I find the point.

When I was writing “McKiely’s Song,” I was wondering, “What are the concerns of a seven-year-old?” She would want to be with her friends but couldn’t be. Then there were all the things that it had been so long since I had done. I found myself asking a series of questions, “When was the last time I did this? When was the last time I did that?” Then, “When was the last time I whispered in your ear?”, was something that I imagined a child would do. Strangely, many of them rhymed well, so I literally wrote as many of these I could think of. Then I just picked the nine that I thought were the most vivid and relevant to a child’s experience. It really was just an honest list of complaints and mourning. I was thinking about things as a woman, as a mother, and as this little girl might think of it. I’m happy, but not surprised, to hear that it has a feminine voice.

AH: There’s a usefulness, I think, in addressing the feelings that we’ve been through in the past three years, too. When you write music that can apply to a lot of situations, I think it can help people discover and express their emotions, so even if a song has anger or has grief, it’s not so restrictive that people can’t find their own outlet in them.

MGP: I totally see what you mean. There are three songs on the album that were consciously pandemic songs, and the third one was “Feel Something.” The overwhelming feeling of the pandemic led to a feeling of numbness, too. I remember talking to my producer, Kenny, about this song, and he said, “This song could be for anyone at any time who is going through a lot. So, chill. It’s going to be fine.”

AH: Totally! I didn’t assume a specific situation for that song. I just thought the contradictions in it were really interesting. I could relate because in times of high pressure, I tend to feel a bit disassociated.

MGP: Yes! I just had a conversation with my daughter, who is 22-years-old, about being disassociated. I’m very familiar with that.

AH: I applaud you for the some of the details in that song that you didn’t self-edit or cut out, such as the anxious dreaming, and the terror. I thought, “Wow! She’s really going there!” It’s a totally recognizable syndrome.

MGP: [Laughs] I was singing that song at a show in Birmingham, Alabama, and there was hardly anyone at the show who wasn’t related to me. That’s part of the reason that I went there. I was playing all of these songs for these people. At one point, I said, “I find it a little weird that my happy songs sound sad and my sad songs sound happy.”

And one of my cousins yelled out, as a heckler, “That’s because you’re a Devore!” That’s my mother’s family and it’s probably accurate. I try to contain and allow for contradictions at all times. I think part of the definition of being an adult is feeling 180 degree contradictions all the time and somehow being okay with that.

AH: I should never have punched that card! Let’s go back in time to childhood. That experience with your extended family must have been the best inside joke.

MGP: I’m generally pretty funny on stage, even more than in normal life. But I have never been as funny as during that show. All of them got the jokes before I even told them. They were hilarious.


AH: To go back to the point that you come up with melodies via dreams, did the music itself change for you during this period? Were you having fearful dreams?

MGP: The way that it comes didn’t really change. I also find that when I’m in a really cranky headspace, the melodies that come to me in dreams are not necessarily cranky. The melodies almost never match my mood at the time, almost to the point of irritation! If I want to write a cranky song, all I’m getting in my head are these boppy little Power Pop tunes. I do keep them, though, and sometimes I find melodies that I think match the song that I’m writing, and then I write the lyrics to fit them. Occasionally, I have a line that I really want to be in the song and I look for a melody that matches that meter. But I have a lot less success with that.

A few days ago, I got back from Europe where I was helping my son move to a new apartment. Both of my children are professional ballet dancers, and my son lives in the Czech Republic. Having lived in Europe myself, I went over to help him move. Part of the reason that I love trips is that I get to see my family and go cool places, but another big reason I love them is that I almost always write a song on the way there and a song on the way back. There’s something about being strapped to a chair that really helps me focus! This time I wrote a song on the way home, that I’ve tentatively titled, “Fire Eater.” I went through my phone and listened to melodies to find one that sounded like the mood I was after, and then I wrote the song around it.

Thank you Martha Groves Perry for chatting with us! Find more details on her website:

Enjoy our previous coverage here: Song Premiere: Martha Groves Perry “Blessed Avalanche”

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